By Marilyn Lester
The irony of Peter and Will Anderson, accomplished jazz virtuosos of reeds, devoting an entire concert of swing to Jerome Kern, is that this venerable icon of American standards was no lover of jazz music at all. In fact, he had it stipulated in his contracts that his work could not be interfered with. And so it was, with great respect and affection, that the twins proceeded to bring Kern’s music alive with straight ahead jazz interpretations of the canon – playng with just enough melody and just enough improvisation that perhaps Kern wasn’t rolling in his grave after all.
Their opening two numbers, “The Way You Look Tonight” (Dorothy Fields, lyrics) and “Nobody Else But Me,” written with Oscar Hammerstein for the 1946 revival of Showboat (Kern died unexpectedly before the show opened), immediately showcased the Andersons musicality and creativity. Arrangements by Peter featured the two switching up their choice of instruments (even within a single work) as well as trading off who is playing the melody line at any given time. Therein followed 90 minutes of sheer enjoyment in their template of narrative, video presentation and music.
Will, handling the spoken word, was particularly playful in his text. Explaining how Kern, a slight, intellectual type, avoided bullying at school because of his musical talent, exclaimed, “the music nerds get mad respect!” With his youthful charm, other humorous nuggets also got mad respect – and laughs. Clips of jazz greats, including Dave Brubeck, Wes Montgomery, Nancy Wilson, Chet Baker and Art Tatum – that wildly improvisational pianist – all having their way with Kern, brought smiles and chuckles. On the serious side, Anderson explained why jazz artists love Kern: it was the way he wrote music. He was a finished and detailed composer, yet his harmonics invited a filling in of certain gaps – irresistibly.
Kern was a classically trained musician, born in 1885, who came late to the table of “pop” music; yet when he did, he opened up a whole new world. His earliest musical theater collaborations (with P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton) were based on operetta and European idioms. With experience and a widened sensibility in a changing world, Kern eventually embraced ragtime and Tin Pan Alley. He was taken with the Edna Ferber novel that would become Showboat, and moving far beyond the operettas, light musical comedies and revues that then dominated Broadway, in 1927 started a theatrical revolution. Showboat was Broadway’s first musical play – a serious work that dealt with racism and other deep subjects never before seen on the Great White Way.
Humor was again at play with a clip of Stan Daniels, a producer on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” performing Showboat’s “Ol’ Man River” with a Yiddish accent, eliciting laughs – twice. That tune (Oscar Hammerstein II, lyrics) was sung by Molly Ryan whose sensitive rendition came as close to authenticity as might be possible for a woman singing a “legendary” man’s song. Ryan also sang Showboat’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (Hammerstein) in a slow bluesy tempo, with Will Anderson’s flute adding texture. The singer’s other numbers, including “All the Tings You Are” (Hammerstein) and “A Fine Romance” (Fields) were delivered in the big band style favored by Ryan. It’s a mellow style, not too concerned with emotional depth, but well executed with a pleasant amount of swing. All hands presented an up-tempo finale of “I Won’t Dance” (Hammerstein and Otto Harbach, revised lyric by Fields). The false ending was followed by several bars of more merriment and a greatly satisfied audience.
Musical back up was provided by Clovis Nicolas on bass and Phil Stewart on drums, both of whom demonstrated serious chops on their solos. Talented pianist Steve Ash excelled on a lush, slow solo rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Harbach).
Photo: David Rosen
Songbook Summit continues at Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street, through September 2, 2018 with further tributes to Hoagy Carmichael and Jimmy Van Heusen. See www.symphonyspace.org or call 212-864-5400 for details.